Driving “Miss Julie”

In this essay, Conte expounds on the social and historical context of “Miss Julie” and the literary movement known as “Naturalism.”
Swedish Dramatist August Strindberg

Our “Found in Translation” series continues with our production of Miss Julie by Swedish dramatist August Strindberg. First performed professionally in 1889, Miss Julie shocked audiences with its frank depiction of the power struggle between a member of the landed gentry, Miss Julie, and a member of the peasantry, her valet Jean. Under the spell of Midsummer festivities, the characters probe the boundaries of class, sex, and gender during the Victorian era in discussions that are presciently modern in detail and scope. Strindberg masterfully weaves Marxism, Darwinism, and Freudianism into a tapestry on which emerges the images of three complex individuals whose conflicting motives, desires, beliefs, and fears produce an evening of theatre as compelling now as it was when the play debuted over 130 years ago.

Scene from a melodrama

What made the play so daring then was its departure from the cultural norms reinforced by the melodrama, which tended to present stock villains, heroes, heroines, stage ethnics, and other familiar types in contrived situations usually resolved in some fortuitous way. Theodicy, the “justice of the gods,” is meted out as the villains are exposed and the good guys live happily ever after. The audience leaves the theatre hopeful that their own lives, lived well, will be similarly rewarded, their adversaries and oppressors condignly punished. With their menageries of wicked landlords, greedy bankers, blackmailers, kidnappers, drunkards, layabouts, and all manner of virtuous working class individuals both male and female, the melodramas were the morality plays of the Industrial Age.

Adjacent to all this was an intellectual revolution that would change not only contemporary 19th century culture but all of history going forward. As noted above, at this time the ideas of Marx, Darwin, and Freud were circulating widely, and not without controversy. The theatre, being both a repository for and expression of its time, absorbed these trends by way of the literary movement known as Naturalism, whose strident champion was the novelist and dramatist Emile Zola. By the 1880s, the movement had spread from France throughout Europe, and in the hands of writers such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and Hauptmann, Naturalism transformed the arts of playwrighting and acting.

Scene from a production of Miss Julie at the People’s Theatre, Stockholm, Sweden, circa 1906

Naturalism regards the present state of the human condition as the sum total of all that went before. This holds for societies as well as individuals. Our problems, our suffering, can all be traced to the past: what others have done, what we have done, and what was done to us. On the societal level, history is defined by the class struggle—the haves versus the have-nots. The unequal distribution of wealth and resourses is and has always been the source of violence, poverty, and injustice. On the personal level, one’s neuroses, anxieties, depressions, phobias, and dysfunctional behavior can be understood only by painstaking excavation of one’s past. At all levels, we harbor the primitive instincts of the primates from which we evolved, making us prone to violence, cruelty, lust, and deceit in the service of our own interests. Moreover, we are not immune from the consequences of the bad behavior of our ancestors, since criminality and dissolution were believed to be heritable—to “run in families.” All of these influences lurk in the background of every human consciousness; along with our experiences, they make us what we are. It is an industrial era reimagination of the ancient belief in Fate, an application of science and reason to the problem of destiny, and of character.

However, unlike their ancient intellectual forebears, the proponents of Naturalism believed in a way out. Close examination of natural phenomena by means of scientific method produced discoveries in chemistry, physics, and biology that appeared to place humanity on the threshold of a golden age. Why not, reasoned the Naturalists, apply the same scientific scrutiny to societies and individuals? By shedding light on the past, which is always present, and therefore can be studied, we can understand why things are the way they are, and why they fall short of the ideal. But this is possible only by bold and unflinching confrontation with the truth of the present, however ugly it may be. Poverty, crime, injustice, disease, all must be represented starkly and truthfully; the suffering of individuals and whole classes of people cannot be whitewashed and sanitized if we are to get to the root of the problem and actively pursue solutions based on the insights obtained.

Scene from a Swedish film version of Miss Julie, 1951

Novels and plays in the naturalistic mode determined to bring to the audience “a slice of life.” The box set, with its three interior walls and the invisible “fourth wall” through which the audience peers, was ideal for this purpose. The painted canvas flat was abolished, replaced with sets on which actors could play pianos, retrieve books from shelves, cook with utensils, warm themselves by actual wood burning stoves, and also butcher meat, weave fabric, or perform other similar tasks. The goal was to recreate as closely as possible the environment that the characters would inhabit in real life. This was done so that the audience could observe the characters in their “natural habitats.” The bourgeoise luxury of the Helmer’s drawing room in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the decrepit basement slum inhabited by the dwellers of Gorki’s The Lower Depths situate the characters in realistic reproductions of their resepctive worlds, with the result that the audience is vicariously inducted into those worlds. Armed now with new insight evoked from the audience’s identification with or sympathy for the characters, we are supposed to emerge from the experience of the Naturalistic theatre with the inspiration to confront the problems of, say, women’s suffrage or workers’ rights, and work toward equitable solutions.

High minded as it was, the extent to which Naturalism effected meaningful change is debatable. While social justice and other causes continued to provide grist for Naturalism’s mill throughout the late 19th-early 20th centuries, the plays gradually but increasingly focused on the personal and psychological as opposed to the communal and sociological. Interest shifted from the problem of alcoholism to this person’s problem with alcoholism, with plays exploring in three acts the outer manifestations of characters’ inner torments, culminating at last with cathartic revelation of the “deep dark secret” from the past that has caused so much pain for so long. The shock and pity educed by these plays became ends in themselves, although in the hands of later dramatists such as Miller, O’Neill, and Williams, the experience of these plays yielded profound, often lamentable insight into the human condition generally, while focusing quite narrowly on a single individual or family.

Konstantin Stanislavski

The author of Miss Julie, August Strindberg, realized that this new dramatic style demanded a new kind of theatre facility. At around the same time, Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski realized that this new dramatic style demanded a new approach to acting. In his seminal essay, “The Preface to Miss Julie,” Strindberg declares the traditional proscenium theaters and their lavish auditoria unsuitable for the production of Naturalistic plays. He argued for smaller, more intimate venues that would permit flexible seating arrangements and closer proximity between the audience and the actors. Heavy stage make-up with painted-on frown lines and wrinkles would seem grotesque at close range, so Strindberg abolished it, along with the footlights that cast ghastly shadows on actors’ faces, and the canvas flats painted to look like the walls of a home or some other location. Meanwhile, in Moscow, it dawned on Stanislavski that his productions of Chekhov’s plays were failing because no one knew how to act them properly. Chekhov’s characters were too nuanced to be performed by actors equipped only with the stereotypies of the stock characters they played throughout their careers, what was known as their “lines of business.” Stanislavski understood that in order for actors to be effective in the portrayal of Chekhov’s complex characters, the actors needed time to study the character, develop a detailed description of the character’s past, and most importantly, find ways to connect what is happening to the characters with their own life experiences. This theorizing evolved into a practical “method” in which actors were (and still are) trained to evoke authentic feeling and seemingly spontaneous action and reaction in performance by means of various exercises and a lengthy rehearsal process. Ideally, actors should vanish in their roles, their personalities subsumed into their characters’, which results in performances that are as realistic and convincing as the sets on which these plays were staged.

In producing Miss Julie, Theatre of the Poor hopes to provide our audience with an experience of the Naturalistic/Realistic theatre of the 19th century. Our Studio Theater comports with Strindberg’s vision of the ideal space for this play. Though our resources do not permit a thorough-going reproduction of the kitchen of a country estate, we can do enough with the space to offer a sense of the “slice of life” so crititcal to the genre. None of this, though, is as important as the quality of acting necessary to the show’s success. We are fortunate to have three beautiful actors portraying Miss Julie (Tricia Levitt Lovelace), her cook Christine (Tiana Saunders), and the valet, Jean (Vincent Grund); we have spent a great deal of time poring over the script, teasing out subtext, exploring the characters’ tangled relationships and dark pasts, and discussing the characters’ strategies and tactics. More broadly pursuant to our mission, the production continues our ongoing odyssey through the history and theory of the Theatre by staging the best of what has been thought and written, learning and growing as theatre artists, and sharing our discoveries with our audience.

William Conte, Ph.D.
Artistic Director


  1. This is a fascinating and informative essay about the historical and social context of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” and the literary movement of Naturalism. The writer provides a thorough analysis of the political, cultural, and artistic influences of the time period and the impact that this groundbreaking play had on theater and society.
    founder of balance thy life https://balancethylife.com

    Liked by 1 person

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